School Lunches May Add Soy Products
December 23, WASHINGTON (AP) -- Worried
about the fat in kids' meals, federal officials want to let schools and
day care centers serve tofu, veggieburgers and other soy products as
meat substitutes in federally subsidized lunches.
The Agriculture Department is proposing
to drop its restrictions on how much soy can be used in meals. Under
current rules, soy can only be a food additive and only in amounts of
less than 30 percent.
President Reagan's budget crunchers tried
to make tofu a meat substitute nearly two decades ago -- at the same
time they tried to reclassify ketchup as a vegetable -- but they beat a
hasty retreat when the idea became a lightning rod for opponents of his
spending cuts. USDA officials deny their motive now is to save money,
arguing instead that soy is a good source of protein.
"Its time has come,'' said Shirley
Watkins, USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer
services. ``I think people are more receptive than they would have been
five or 10 years ago.''
Beef, pork and poultry producers are
fighting the move, but schools like it because they are having trouble
complying with government limits on the fat content of meals. And for
the fast-growing soy industry, the $6 billion school lunch program
offers a vast new market and a way to introduce families to the
expanding array of new, better-tasting products that have been developed
in recent years.
Although the proposal would allow schools
to offer meatless entrees -- tofu-stuffed ravioli is one menu
possibility -- nutritionists say schools are more likely to use it to
increase the amount of soy that they blend into their standard fare:
burgers, tacos and the like.
USDA's proposal has its roots in a
decision the department made in 1994 to start requiring schools to meet
the government's dietary guidelines for fat and nutrients. That meant
that the fat content in school menus could no longer exceed 30 percent
over a week. Schools have cut the amount of cheese in pizzas and the
number of meatballs they serve with spaghetti, but they still struggle
to stay under the limit.
The soy proposal has pit soybean farmers
against cattle ranchers and other livestock producers, who argue that
children won't get sufficient protein or enough iron and zinc if they
eat less meat. A standard soyburger, which contains no meat, has 3 grams
of fat, compared to 16 in a beef patty, and a significant amount of
calcium. But the soyburger has a third less protein than the beef patty
and no iron or zinc.
Vegetarians and animal rights activists
have flooded USDA with letters and email messages praising the proposal,
but the change may have an impact they don't want. Allowing a higher soy
content will make it easier for schools to keep meat on their menus,
said Carol Tucker Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of
America's Food Policy Institute. "There is every reason to believe the
proposed rule will perpetuate the role of meat and poultry in the school
food programs, not threaten it,'' she said.
Watkins said she expects the department
to make a final decision on the change by mid-February. USDA approved
yogurt as a meat substitute in 1997.
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